The New York Times
January 17th, 1997
Decoding la Différence: Gender as Dress and Pose
By ROBERTA SMITH
Successful thematic exhibitions are rare enough to be the art world’s equivalent of hen’s teeth. This is especially true for 20th-century art and for major New York museums, where intense scrutiny can stifle curatorial risk-taking. Which makes “Rrose Is a Rrose Is a Rrose: Gender Performance in Photography at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum the exception that proves the rule.
Don’t be put off by the slightly academic title: this exhibition, organized by Jennifer Blessing, a curator at the Guggenheim, is focused and coherent without being homogenous or predictable. Although modest – it includes 80 often small photographic works by 24 artists, from Man Ray to Matthew Barney – the show possesses beauty, brains and something even more scarce, a kind of wisdom that might be called humanistic.
And it takes on one of the most charged issues in contemporary life: gender or sexual identity. Lately, that issue has reared its fascinating head in nearly every corner of culture, with cross-dressing and tranvestism, or gender-bending comportment at least, regular talk-show subjects and staples of the entertainment diet, from “Tootsie,” “The Crying Game” and “Ellen” to Ru Paul, K. D. Lang and “Victor/Victoria.” Among the historical precedents one might cite are Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet and Mary Martin as Peter Pan.
In the last three decades, the women’s and gay liberation movements have helped blur gender roles arid expectations as well as fashion options, though artists have been dealing openly with this theme at least since Duchamp, who articulated his love of esthetic and sexual ambiguity with a female alter ego, Rrose Sélavy (pronounced “Eros c’est la vie or “Eros is life”). At universities and colleges, lesbian and gay studies abound, and “gender theory is the latest in a succession of cutting-edge tools that have included deconstruction, Lacanian psychoanalysis and multiculturalism.
Into this swirling cultural mix jumps “Rrose Is a Rrose Is a Rrose, its title combining Duchamp’s anagram with what is probably the most famous line of poetry written by Gertrude Stein, an early modernist and gender-bender.
Ms. Blessing’s strategy has been to think small in order to think clearly, and to limit her selections to a single medium, which gives the show a visual coherence unusual in these days of rampant multimedia-ism. She seems to subscribe to the position (popular with many theorists) that gender is fluid and artificial, that masculine and feminine are not simple binaries but· a continuum shaped and constructed collaboratively by society, the family and the individual. In the show’s catalogue, which is also outstanding, Ms. Blessing quotes Judith Butler, one of gender theory’s leading writers, to the effect that all gender is drag: that is, that the outward appearance of gender, as communicated by dress and behavior, Is always being performed – consciously or unconsciously.
The exhibition largely supports this point in a dignified, rather esthetic manner that seems intended to reach a broad audience with the further argument that a fluctuating sense of gender is part of the human condition. Some may find this approach overly cautious and others may find it too radical, wanting for opposite reasons to keep cross- dressing and transvestism exclusively identified with the homosexual subculture. But the effort here is to place such practices on a broader and a more symbolic plane, to normalize them while expanding our understanding of their meanings.
The exhibition includes very little in the way of nudity or sexually sensational or voyeuristic images. The only real nude is an impeccably classicized female torso in a 1935 photograph by George Platt Lynes; in the best Surrealist tradition, it comes with an equally idealized ma1~ shadow. The raciest images are three from the late 1960’s by Pierre Molinier, a French performance artist. One shows him seductively attired in garters, corset and a female mask. In another image, a montage, he multiplies these images into a carefully organized, almost friezelike orgy. Also mildly demonic are the early 1970’s photographs of Jurgen Klauke, a little-known German artist, which show him elaborately costumed (rather like an escapee from a heavy-metal band) and licking hornlike breasts taped to his chest.
Otherwise, no one is caught in any act; each act – each image – seems carefully constructed and controlled by its subject or its maker. As Ms. Blessing herself notes, in nearly every case the subjects of these images stare directly into the lens, fully conscious of themselves and of the camera’s recording power.
Giving equal attention to works from before World War II and those from the last 25 years, the show charts some of the great moments in sexual ambiguity, reversal and exaggeration, as performed in photography: Among the artists you would expect to see are Lyle Ashton Harris, Lucas Samaras and Robert Mapplethorpe, the latter represented by contrasting Images of a pompadoured biker in a leather jacket and a soft Nijinsky-like faun. But there are also plenty of wonderful surprises: an early work involving altered found photographs of men and women by the French Conceptualist Annette Messager and, from a few generations earlier, the French between- the-wars photographer Claude Cahun, who is just becoming known on this side of the Atlantic for role- playing self-portraits similar to those of Cindy Sherman.
There are images of men dressed as women, of women as men, also of men and women playing themselves, but In intensified, ambiguous ways or stereotypical ways, as in lush color portraits of upper-class British beauties costumed (and head-dressed) as goddesses. These were orchestrated in the 1930’s by a photographer named Madame Yevonde, another of the show’s surprises.
The exhibition executes repeated three-point turns between photography as art, photojournalism and society portraiture – and between the unknown, the famous and the mythic. Mythic would be Duchamp’s “L.H.O.O.Q.,” a reproduction of the “Mona Lisa to which the artist added a penciled mustache and goatee, putting an entirely different spin on her mysterious smile. Nearby hangs Cecil Beaton’s far less familiar portrait of Gertrude Stein, totemlike in a big overcoat, with a smaller, more femininely dressed Image of herself in the background. Representing the- documentary impulse are Cartier Bresson’s powerful images of lesbian couples in the between-the-wars Paris demimonde and Nan Goldin’s portraits of haughty 80’s drag queens.
More deliberately artificial are Hannah Hoch’s montages of hybrid figures that combine the parts of different faces and bodies to startling effect; Mr. Barney’s sexy, if sexless, fairies with biceps out to here and Raggedy Ann-red hair, and Inez van Lamsweerde’s image of a man lying on his side while raising a hand that Is decidedly and shockingly female, thanks to seamless computer imaging.
Sometimes the jolts happen over a sequence of works. A row of five Beaton images begins with a luminous photograph of Countess Castega, a slight, intense woman in a man’s suit and slicked-back hair, and proceeds through portraits that all seem consciously androgynous in different ways, to varying degrees. But the final image is a glamorous studio shot of Gary Cooper, and here the androgyny, communicated by a cocked hip and a head turned sharply in profile, seems unconscious, in the eye of the beholder as it were. A similar frisson is emitted -by Brassai’s “Woman at Le Monocle, Montparnasse,” who looks like a man in drag.
And a further reversal: in 1986 Polaroid’s of himself wearing a tightly coiffed blond wig and bright red lipstick, Andy Warhol becomes one of the ubiquitous ladies-who-lunch of his society portraits a decade earlier.
This exhibition does not exhaust its large and Increasingly Important subject, but it makes every image count, and it is especially powerful for doing something that theories of gender repeatedly talk about. It sets gender in perpetual motion, as a shifting, self-defined element of play, pleasure and pride. In the process, it teaches nearly as much about life as it does about art.
“Rrose Is a Rrose Is a Rrose: Gender Performance in Photography” remains at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1071 Fifth Avenue, at 89th Street, through April 27.